Sonoma County conducted a live trial run of its overhauled emergency alert system Wednesday, marking a closely-watched bid to see how well local governments can warn the public about disasters and other dangers nearly one year after the most destructive wildfire in state history.
Starting at 10 a.m., the county and Santa Rosa sent a series of test messages aimed at thousands of cellphones in five target locations using the federal Wireless Emergency Alerts system — the same program the county controversially opted not to use during last October’s wildfires, leaving many residents without any official warning.
The test was believed to be the first of its kind on the West Coast.
“Almost a year ago, we were smacked in the face by the most catastrophic wildfire in California’s history,” Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore told reporters after the test. “We’ve been on our heels ever since, and this marks for us a day when we get back on our toes.”
The county failed to use the Amber Alert-style warnings during the firestorm last year because a previous emergency manager did not think the system could be sufficiently targeted to residents at risk. But a review from the state Office of Emergency Services released in February concluded that decision was “influenced by a limited awareness and understanding” of the system and “outdated information” about its technical capabilities.
Wednesday provided the county a public opportunity to test the implications of that finding.
The wireless messages were aimed first at cellphones in Guerneville, followed by Glen Ellen and Kenwood, then Healdsburg, Penngrove and finally Roseland. The tests concluded with countywide trial messages sent through local television and radio channels distributed through the federal Emergency Alert System.
Early reports indicated the cellphone messages were not always confined to the set boundaries planned by local administrators.
County officials noted “significant spillover” in some places, with messages intended for the Sonoma Valley received in Rohnert Park and Petaluma, according to Gore. The message targeted for Guerneville appeared to hit phones as far away as Graton and The Sea Ranch, he said.
And even in Guerneville, where flooding from the Russian River is common, many people received no message at all, said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents the region. Hopkins said she called the Russian River fire department and was told not a single employee there received a mobile notification.
Ensuring the success of wireless alerts in the Guerneville area is particularly important because of the large volume of tourists who drawn there, Hopkins said.
“If that system is not working in the lower Russian River, we need to work with our service providers to figure out what the gap is and how to address it,” she said. “A lot of people have my cellphone number. A lot of people know me on Facebook. And the fact that I am getting the vast majority of people saying that they did not actually receive a notification is very, very concerning to me.”
Some county officials personally experienced the “spillover” effect when, after the Roseland alert was sent, several people gathered at the emergency operations center in north Santa Rosa received alerts on their phones. All said they were AT&T customers.
Still, county leaders hailed Wednesday as a worthwhile and successful exercise because the technology worked and the public responded to the messages. And identifying the system’s weak spots was one of the reasons the test happened in the first place, county officials said.